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Among the wandering cattle herders in the Heart of Africa

Sorry for the delayed posting. I was out of battery power and walking too much for my solar panel to charge stuff. Here is my post for March 29, 2017:

There were colobus monkeys calling before dawn again along the river this morning. In the early 1980s, when I did surveys in the north of the Central African Republic, I estimated the number of black-and-white colobus monkeys to be in the thousands, and people scoffed at the result. However, at every campsite here we have had colobus calling along the river.  If you can imagine a group only every 5 km along the river, and you have 600 km of river, times say 15 individuals, you get over 1,500 black-and-white colobus just along the main stem of the Chinko River.

In search of the cattle camps. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
In search of the cattle camps. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We got going just before dawn. We could still hear the cows and donkeys across the river and got a good bearing on them, so this is the first objective of the day. Passing through the landos, and even in the normal savanna areas, the grass was greening and growing very fast.  Funny, because on the whole walk we only had one light storm one evening, but here it is obvious that they have had a few good storms permitting the grasses to break out of their dormancy.

We spotted a Grimm’s duiker and kept walking west, but it seemed the cows were much farther than they sounded from the river.  Finally, we ran into a herd of cows and we could see a herder who didn’t respond to our calls and kind of slinked away; but then we could see a camp that was still up and active.

We made our way slowly and cautiously into the camp. Yaya presented like an olive branch, to signal that we were coming in peace, pronouncing loudly Assalamo a leekum.  We could see a man coming to greet us. He was reserved, but with a slight smile. He couldn’t do much about us because he was anchored to his stuff and his family.   As we approached the tent, we could see that he had several kids and a wife.  They formally invited us to visit the kids and camp.

First herder encountered from Tulus. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
First herder encountered from Tulus. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Herder with wife and children. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Herder with wife and children. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Milk, they said, is flowing from cows, so they can now drink. It tasted sweet and nice. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Milk, they said, is flowing from cows, so they can now drink. It tasted sweet and nice. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Kids hanging by the fire. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Kids hanging by the fire. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

They gave us milk to drink and the conversation was more or less stilted.  Yaya asked them if they were “Arabs or Mbororo”; they said “Arab”.  They said they were from Tulus in southern Darfur. The kids were curious, but not too outgoing.  His wife was young and still pretty, but she had five children. Amazing, these guys are born, grow up and die out here in the bush, with nothing having to do with the modern world except cow medicine. They had us take pictures of them and you could see that his wife had not seen herself in a long time; she just kind of gazed into the image of herself in silence. The man, Mohammed was his name, asked us for medicine; he decribed what sounded like an ulcer. I gave him a full treatment of Cipro, thinking maybe he had a gut infection.

Kids are born in the bush, grow up in the bush, and die in the bush. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Kids are born in the bush, grow up in the bush, and die in the bush. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Mohammed told us that we would be running into other folks down the way and that we should just tell them that we passed by his camp.

Packing up for the move north. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Packing up for the move north. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Quickly we came to another camp, with just a woman and some kids; she was packing for the move and looked like she was freaking out.  Quickly though, Mohammed showed up and put her at ease.  These Arabs are like the Chadian Arab herders; they bring the entire household with them in their travels: wooden beds, tables, storage calabashes. All of it is made from natural materials.

Second herder encountered from Tulus brings us to his feric. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Second herder encountered from Tulus brings us to his feric. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Baggage of Fulani herders. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Baggage of Fulani herders. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Calabash for milk. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Calabash for milk. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

After a bit, we ran into another herd, with a young Arab guy leading them. He was scared to death. Then a second, about 20 minutes later, leading another herd; he was friendly and smiley and looked like he wanted to tag along with us.

A friendly herder. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
A friendly herder. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Herder who was scared. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.
Herder who was scared. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.

Then about 20 minutes later we ran into another two guys with about 50 cows.  They all said they were from Tulus; they were all in their twenties.  As we spoke to these new two guys, another, then another, arrived, until finally there were six, all leading different herds, chatting with us. I noticed one had on fresh clean clothes, so he had obviously changed to come see us.

This whole group of individual herders congregated one by one on around us. Several had changed clothes for the occasion. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
This whole group of individual herders congregated one by one on around us. Several had changed clothes for the occasion. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

They all said that they were Arabs from Tulus.  They said that now that there is grass, they are going home. They have mostly run out of food and are itching to get back.  They said it would take about two months or so to make it back to their home villages. These guys were hams; we took lots of photos together. They gave us fresh milk and we bade them farewell.

Water source for herders Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Water source for herders Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

There was lots of fresh dung everywhere now. The grass was green and abundant, like a different planet from two weeks ago.  We saw warthogs more than once as we progressed.  They definitely follow the cow herds to eat the dung.

Signs put on trail to guide those who follow. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Signs put on trail to guide those who follow. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

I joked with Felix that he should have given his machete that is fashioned into a sword, which is common here, to the guy who admired it.  He said quite seriously “out here, you give somebody steel, and they will turn around and kill you with it”.

One chill calf and one freaking out. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
One chill calf and one freaking out. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Cows stealing salt in the confusion of our visit. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Cows stealing salt in the confusion of our visit. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We left that band of herds and camps and transitioned through this green area, up toward a pass between two hills which seemed like where the trails came from.  As we got closer to the pass, we encountered cows, and soon thereafter, another camp came into view.  This time we were greeted by Fulani people.  They were still going to be in this camp for some more time; there were about five tents, all with stuff strewn around.

The matriarch of this group of Fulani. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
The matriarch of this group of Fulani. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We talked to the headman. He said they were from Tulus. He knew the Chinko and Kavadjia, and he said that they had also been on the march for six months. We spent time photographing his tent and family, and I could see activity over in the other tents.

Grandma. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Grandma. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

An older woman came over to be photographed, and I could see others milling around. Finally we were invited over to the other tents where there were three maidens who had taken the time to put on their best clothes, amulets and jewelry, for us to photograph them.  It is strange how this happens when you don’t push; the girls in particular want to have their pictures taken.

Girls in their best dress. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Girls in their best dress. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Posing with young ladies who dressed up to be photographed. Photograph courtesy of J. Michael Fay.
Posing with young ladies who dressed up to be photographed. Photograph courtesy of J. Michael Fay.
Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Then the young boy herders showed up to be photographed with their cows, and the little kids were running around grabbing at the camera to see the pictures.  This was the first thing out of the ordinary that had happened [to them] for months, except maybe run-ins with Chinko Project people to the south. I was thinking, though, that the men fully realize that the presence of a white man this far into this zone which has been abandoned by the Central African Republic all this time is a major threat to their future in the area.  We are the people who come from that inevitable other side.  Humans always meet somewhere in the hinterland, and then eventually clash.

Young herder boys came in to get their photo taken. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Young herder boys came in to get their photo taken. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

They filled one of our jugs with fresh milk and we carried on.  Once we were through the pass, we headed to the south and the major trail seemed to head off to the west. We ran into an old safari hunting road that had been abandoned for a long time. We decided that because of our position we would head south to the Kavadjia River and leave the Chinko to the east.

The Kavadjia zone was one of the best places to kill elephants with ivory over 100kg up until the late 1970s, and there were still black rhino common back then.  I try to find solace in the fact that South Africa also lost most of its wildlife before the turn of the 20th Century, and now it is abundant again over the country, in highly managed landscapes, with genetic diversity being managed like nowhere else in well over 50 species of large mammals.

The beautiful Kavadjia River used to be an elephant safari paradise. Elephants are extinct here now. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.
The beautiful Kavadjia River used to be an elephant safari paradise. Elephants are extinct here now. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.

We got close to the Kavadjia after a hot walk and ran into another couple of guys with a herd of cows. They were not at all talkative. We got to the river, which is beautiful, flowing, and full of rocks. We settled in, and about an hour later the two same guys showed up with donkeys to fetch water. They came into our camp. They were Fulani from Tulus and looking for medicine. The one guy sounded like he had Dengue Fever, and the other an ulcer. So I gave the one Codeine with Paracetamol and the other antibiotics. They were also asking for food, saying they had run out. We asked if we could follow them back to their camp.  They gracefully declined.

More Uda met on the Kavadjia, River. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
More Uda met on the Kavadjia, River. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Uda sheep. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Uda sheep. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

They asked a lot of questions about the “park,” what the possibilities for grazing were, and if there was a way to start trading cows for supplies with the park.  We told them that there was very likely no chance that was going to happen.  They left us in our camp.  The habitual group of baboons came to visit and ate the last of our catfish.

Felix ready for the end of the trek. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.
Felix ready for the end of the trek. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.

Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he can the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s most remote and inaccessible wildernesses (among them the National Geographic-sponsored Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent. You can read all his dispatches at Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.